How Many Languages Are There?

Updated October 12, 2021 | Infoplease Staff

A confusion of tongues 

According to Ethnologue, the premier source of linguistic data, there are 7,139 spoken languages in the world today. 1,514 of those have fewer than 1,000 living speakers. A little over half of the world's languages are estimated to have writing systems. The number of languages from Ethnologue does include constructed languages like Esperanto.

What are the most common?

There are a few different ways we can define the most common language. The language with the most primary language speakers is Mandarin Chinese. This does not include other Chinese languages like Cantonese

If we include second language speakers, English is the most popular. English is also official in the most countries, with 67 countries naming English their official language. It is the lingua franca for much of the world, and is the most common single language for conducting business.

Although they don't rank as highly in terms of speakers, Arabic, Spanish, French and Russian are all recognized as international languages. In general, European languages tend to be the most represented around the world due to the history of European imperialism. English, Spanish and French are official in parts of Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas.

Hindi is the third most-spoken mother tongue, but it is highly concentrated in India.

If you want a more precise breakdown, you should check out our list of the most widely spoken languages in the world.

What about the least common?

As mentioned, there are 1,514 different languages with native speakers in the triple digits. Many of these are indigenous languages that have been gradually lost as English and the Romance languages supplant other local languages. 

In terms of the least common, it's a bit hard to pin down. Some remote communities, which have very rich linguistic diversity, aren't easy to get exact population figures for. Papua New Guinea alone has hundreds of languages. 

But, there are known languages with primary speakers in the double-digits. Excluding extinct or dormant languages, the least popular language is probably Tsuutina. Tsuut'ina has less than 100 speakers.

This is technically different from an endangered language, which is a language no learners among the children of people who speak that language. An endangered language theoretically does not have a strict numerical requirements.

There are also dormant languages, which have no primary speakers but are identified with a living group of people. Chamicuro, an Arawakan language in Peru, is an example with about 20 speakers.

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